Hillsborough continues collecting transportation tax, but can't spend it

Hundreds of millions of dollars of tax money has been collected in Hillsborough County that voters decided should be spent on transportation projects. But not a cent of the money has been spent. 

“People want to see improvement to our transportation and transportation options,” said Dr. Bob Rohrlack, president and CEO of the Tampa Bay Chamber. 

In 2018, 57 percent of voters said yes to the tax. To date, more than $400 million has been collected, but no projects have been funded because of lawsuits challenging the tax. 

Rohrlack says this would have been the perfect time for projects to relieve congestion.

“We need to be doing now, when there’s less traffic, working on the improvements, so we can experience them when the traffic comes back and the economy comes back, because it will come back,” he continued.

But the tax that voters approved is waiting for a ruling by the Florida Supreme Court because of a lawsuit filed by a Hillsborough County commissioner who says the tax is unconstitutional. 

Stacy White says rural taxpayers get shortchanged paying for urban projects. 

“No, I don’t think that everything hinges on a mass transit system,” insisted White. “We’re a sprawling community.” 

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But others say the Tampa Bay area is falling farther behind because big employers will bring good jobs to areas with good mass transit. 

“The longer we wait, the worse our problem will get,” countered Rohrlack. “Our community has continued to grow” 

Officials say, in Tampa alone, the tax could be paving 32 miles of streets and improving 60 intersections. There are similar plans in Hillsborough’s other two cities and the unincorporated areas of the county. 

But the pennies people have been paying since the tax was approved are staying in an account. Opponents say that’s a good thing. 

“With the issue being in limbo and undecided by the Supreme Court, it would certainly be unwise to spend any of those dollars,” added White.

A separate lawsuit seeks to return the sales tax money to consumers, although a method for doing that is unclear. 

The Florida Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case in February of 2019. There’s no indication of when a ruling may be handed down. 

In the meantime, people pay a penny for Hillsborough’s transportation tax that has so far, gone nowhere.